If we ever think of an MMO’s user interface, it’s either when we’re getting settled into a new game or when a title decides to streamline or improve its UI elements. Otherwise, it’s something that’s in front of us all the time that we don’t really “see,” as we’re looking beyond that to the play field.
However, I’m going to draw back our vision today to look at these unsung heroes of the user interface. The function and design of these elements often have a great impact on our gameplay (hopefully positive, but not always), and the debate over how detailed or minimalistic an UI should be will continue into eternity. But what are the parts that deserve a bit of praise?
For those of us who eschew voice chat, the text chat window often is our main portal to the social scene in an MMO. It’s through this seemingly innocuous box that conversations, debates, and exceedingly dank Chuck Norris memes still flow. Sure, sometimes world chat is too much, but guild chat and tells are (usually) welcome. It’s hard to imagine a time before MMOs actually had these — but there was, and it was awful trying to coordinate with others.
I’ve noticed a disturbing trend of MMOs ejecting the familiar minimap in favor of a much less informative compass bar (New World and Elder Scrolls Online, I’m glaring at you right now). A permanent on-screen map not only helps us navigate our environment but gives us a strong sense of our surroundings. As a person who frequently gets lost in my own small house, I need all the navigation aids I can get in MMOs.
No, Justin, not that Windows. You just picked that graphic because you like primary colors like a preschooler. I’m talking about the simple joy of movable and resizable windows. An MMO that lets me mess around with the on-screen elements like I’m sliding playing cards across a table is one that’s made a friend for life. And I also appreciate a good windowed mode for an MMO if I want to play split-screen or alt-tab out frequently without the game having a hissy fit.
You know what gets a whole lot of respect from me? When MMO developers bend over backwards to create accessibility options that won’t matter for 90% of the playerbase but mean a whole lot for those 10% who are visually impaired, colorblind, or otherwise struggling with a disability. MMOs should strive to cast as wide a net as possible, and this opens a door through an otherwise impassable obstacle.
Considering how we read in MMORPGs, you’d think that fonts would get more chatter in our regular discussions… but they don’t. It’s one of those things that nobody notices unless it’s done badly. So let us pause and appreciate the MMO fonts that are incredibly readable (EVE Online, you are dismissed from this example) with amazing kerning and even a hint of personality. And if your game gives us the option to resize that font so we’re not going blind trying to read microscopic text on a 4K monitor, all the better.
Quest objective directions
Sometimes you are in the mood to get lost and simply explore what’s out there. But for the rest of the time, I certainly don’t want to be wandering all over these digital creations trying to find the glowy doohicky to click. I’ll gladly take the assist of a simple arrow, a blob on the map, or even Neverwinter’s sparkly GPS trail to keep me on track. These are huge games, and life is short.
When you consider how much time we all spend making our character’s outward-facing appearance look good, it’s slightly silly that we end up only seeing their back for the vast majority of the time. So I do appreciate it when an MMO puts my character’s face in a little profile window so that I can visually identify with this character. It’s a small touch but a very psychologically useful one when you think about it.
Buff and debuff counters
The user interface should, at its most ideal design, be giving players important information to make moment-to-moment and long-term decisions. And since combat is such a big part of the game, knowing combat states and how long they’re going to last is essential. So I do appreciate these little buff and debuff icons, especially when it’s easy to tell how long each of them have left.
I know that everyone loves to moan about juggling inventory, but I have always found the effort worth it. After all, inventory — along with your paper doll — represents what you own. It’s your stuff. It’s what could help you survive out in this world, and barring that, be sold to make you a fortune. I’ve never gotten bored with expanding, sorting, and pouring over my inventory. And when MMOs give me better tools to do all of that, I’m even more grateful.
This may seem one of the most inconsequential UI elements, but I’ve always considered the clock quite essential. I almost never game with unlimited time on my hand, so I’ve got to keep an eye on the time to know when I should log out. Having that in-game clock saves me the trouble of alt-tabbing out or looking around in my room (or phone) for this information. Thank you for your quiet, dignified work, Mr. Clock. You keep me on track!